But will it fly?

January 05, 1994|By Russell Baker

THE promises being made for the "information superhighway" are reminiscent of the oversell of atomic energy in the late 1940s.

With the atom's energy, we were told, it would cost only two or three cents to pay the monthly electricity bill. A few pennies' worth of atomic energy would power the Queen Mary across the Atlantic, making luxury travel available to millions.

To find how it came out, glance at your last electricity bill. Ask a travel agent to book you on the Queen Mary for the luxurious five-day voyage to Southampton. You'll take the wretched overnight flight to Heathrow and like it, wise guy.

What's more, you'd be ill advised to annoy the atomic-energy wizards by asking what ever happened to the miracle of incredibly cheap travel. This crowd has ways of making you regret sarcasm, like experimenting on you so subtly that you won't even know your glow is artificial until the doctor asks if your will is in order.

The oversell on the "information superhighway" exploits the same public gullibility that true atomic-energy believers exploited decades ago. It's a gullibility that flows from a touchingly credulous eagerness to believe that new miracle ages are constantly lurking just around the corner.

Even the most ponderous newspaper reporting on the "information superhighway" breathes hints of a new age of magic soon to flow out of fiber-optic wire.

The papers suggest the individual will never again have to leave the house, or the car, or whatever cocoon he chooses to inhabit. With a computer he will be able to sit tight and move happily through the universe, communicating and playing games and "interacting" with both the arts and the schlock, and watching movies or hundreds of TV channels that provide gossip and game shows and instruction in calculus and woodworking, while phoning up Burundi or Osaka or the corner deli for fast-food carry-out delivery.

The point of the miracle seems to be that humanity will never again have to go out on real superhighways, or even mere highways, or even byways or sidewalks. You settle down on your fiber-optic wires and cruise the "information superhighway" to total communication.

I am making it sound singularly nightmarish and silly, which is unfair because there will probably be some real advantages to be had from the thing, at least for those who can afford it. What advantages these might be I can't guess, any more than I could have guessed in 1946 that atomic power might someday enrich our poorer states with federal money for letting their land be used as dump sites for radioactive waste.

I have seen it said, for example, that a person on the "information superhighway" will, while driving home from work, be able to tell his kitchen oven to start cooking the roast. This is as much progress as anybody ought to expect of a new technological miracle, and I applaud it, though not as joyously as I would applaud a low-priced Atlantic crossing on an atomic-powered luxury liner.

Nobody is talking much about what it will cost a customer to get on the new superhighway. This is probably because nobody has the faintest notion about costs. It's at this stage -- when enthusiasm, vision and dreams of big killings prevent everybody from thinking much about real money -- that the oversell of new technological miracles tends to be fiercest.

Television, which was the most commercially successful technological miracle since the automobile, quickly became so vital to Americans that people who couldn't even afford shoes bought sets in the millions. Automobiles still sell robustly though the cost of the average car would have bought one of the best houses in the neighborhood 40 years ago, back when we were dreaming of the atomic miracle taking us to Europe dirt cheap.

The question is whether we will be as desperate for total communication as we once were for television and still are for wheels. The financial types who play Wall Street Monopoly For Big Boys seem to be betting that we will, or else what's all the merging, acquiring and hostile takeovering about in the communications world?

While I wouldn't mind being able to get in touch with my oven while sitting in my car I'd rather put the money into a new car. Pay no attention to this mossback killjoy, however. I'm still sulking about the atomic-energy flop.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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